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Lessons from the early church

Lessons from the early church
Posted on December 6, 2019  - By Sam K. John

There is much that modern-day Christians can learn from first-century believers, including how to avoid many of the issues we face in our assemblies today. Let’s consider three key lessons:

1. A growing church

Acts 6:1 – “The number of disciples was increasing.” This is one of the most repeated statements in the book of Acts. The early church was a growing church (Acts 2:41, 2:47, 4:4, 6:7, 11:21, 11:24, 11:26, 14:1, 14:21, 16:5, 17:4, 17:12, 17:34, 28:33).

The leaders and members of the early church were actively involved in the Lord’s mission. “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah” (Acts 5:42). I believe three factors played a crucial role in this growth story. First, they spent more time in prayer. Second, they fearlessly preached the Word of God (Acts 6:4). That’s the way God wants us to build His church. Prayer and proclamation go hand and hand. It is not either-or; it is both (Ephesians 6:17-18).

In our efforts to strengthen the quality of our churches, we should never ignore the fact that the primary objective of the church is to reach out to others. A church cannot function like a social club that caters only to its members. The church’s mission is to share the love of Christ to the outsiders so that they may receive Him and be added to the body of Christ. A church which has lost its vision for the lost must remember that its primary role is not just meeting Sunday after Sunday for corporate worship or weekly Bible study. Its main work lies outside, in making disciples, as modelled by the apostles in the book of Acts.

A church cannot function like a social club that caters only to its members. Its mission is to share the love of Christ to outsiders

The third factor that fuelled the growth was fellowship and unity found among the followers of Jesus Christ. “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need” (Acts 4:32-37).

The church was a caring place. People saw the life of this new community and they were naturally attracted to it. Even in the following centuries, that’s the way the church conquered Rome. We are not talking here about wooing people with goodies to win them to Christ. Likewise, we are not talking about equal distribution of wealth. Instead, we are talking about love in action, which was so obvious in the early church.

Some of us don’t show any interest in the numerical growth of our local churches. There is a false notion that where there is true gospel, there are less people. We even take false pride in saying, “We don’t want numbers, we only want a few quality people who follow the truth.” In reality, we miss both numerical growth and quality. The early church did not dilute the Gospel in any way, but it was still growing in number. It is true that only God can give numerical growth in our churches (Acts 2:47). However, the question is, do we have an intense desire to see our churches grow? If yes, what efforts are we taking towards that end?

Is God not concerned about numbers? In Revelation 7:9, we read, “…a great number no one could count.” God’s presence will be filled with a great multitude of people redeemed from every nation, tribe and language. Should we not be passionate about the same?

2. A church in crisis 

Look at Acts 6:1 again. As the numbers grew, there were some problems. That is natural. Even without numbers, churches today have plenty of problems. The issue was about the daily distribution of food to needy people in the church. The problem here is not so much about partiality or injustice but about poor administration or supervision. However, the problem certainly had the potential to divide the church on linguistic or regional lines — Grecian Jews and Hebraic Jews. Concerned, the apostles wanted to address it. They felt the crisis should be managed immediately. That’s a leadership principle. Some problems need to be addressed then and there. There are times when remaining silent or overlooking a problem might be a good solution, but not always. People in church leadership must know when to act and when to be silent.

The apostles were clear about their priorities in ministry (Acts 6:2, 4). The twelve realised that they were primarily called out to expand the church by preaching and praying. They didn’t want to be distracted from that ministry by also looking after the distribution of food or waiting on tables. They were not undermining the task in any way or displaying a big-headed attitude. They were prioritising their work and didn’t want to be diverted from their focus. God has gifted each one of us differently. And God has given us different kinds of ministry in the church (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). When we remain focused, the church grows and we also grow in our individual giftedness. God is glorified by both our life and our ministry.

The other thing we note here is that the apostles were willing to trust others and delegate responsibilities. They recognised their limitations and knew they couldn’t do it all by themselves. They were willing to allow other people to grow and use their God-given gifts. Problems will certainly arise in a growing church. But remember, God has also provided solutions for these problems. The solutions are not to be sought out through court cases or outsourcing the work to some secular management schools. God’s solution-makers are His own people in the church. That takes us to the third point.

Problems will certainly arise in a growing church. But God’s solution-makers are His own people in the church

3. A church of godly men

We have already seen how the apostles were leading the church with spiritual maturity. There were fights among them once upon a time, times when they argued over who was the greatest among them (Luke 22:24). However, after Pentecost, everything changed. Now, they were people filled with the Holy Spirit. Their decisions were guided by the Holy Spirit. Look at what they do in crisis: “Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:3).

There are at least two important lessons to be observed here:

  1. The apostles set the guidelines clearly: choose men of good report, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom (Acts 6:3). They were mainly concerned about spiritual qualities. Surprisingly, nothing is mentioned about their worldly credentials: age, race, educational qualification, ability etc. Although the position was serving tables, the apostles did not consider it lightly. Every other thing can be compromised but not spiritual credentials. Giftedness comes only second to fruitfulness. The lesson here is to look for the Spirit’s fruit in a person first and then the Spirit’s gifts. Paul in his pastoral epistles talks about this aspect in 1 Timothy 3:1-10. Sadly, we seem to have plenty of gifted people in our churches today, but very few ‘fruitful’ ones.
  2. The apostles had confidence in the church: they asked the congregation to select seven men among themselves to be ministers (deacons) to serve the tables. Out of a few thousands of mixed people (Grecian, Hebrew and Aramaic-speaking Jews), the congregation finally selected seven men unanimously. The men selected were Hellenistic Jews (considering their Greek names). We do not see the Hebrew-speaking and Aramaic-speaking Jews rise in revolt because of this. They had one mind and spirit. The apostles finally approved and appointed the men officially into service (Acts 6:6). What unity! The apostles trusted their church members and they, in turn, selected seven godly men who were made deacons. The result? “So the Word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). No wonder, a church filled with godly people works wonders.

Sam K. John

About Sam K. John

Based out of Bangalore, India, Sam K. John heads Emmaus Academy of Biblical Studies (EABS), a correspondence Bible school catering to assembly believers across India and the Gulf. He is married to Jiji, and they have two children together.



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